Soldier On: Gluten-Free Challenges in Another World
A Gluten-Free Option
Andrasik led three more support group meetings before deploying home. One topic the group discussed at length was the MRE: Why couldn’t there be a gluten-free option?
Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) are individually packaged, high-calorie field rations used by all branches of the military. A typical MRE consists of an entrée, like breaded chicken or beef teriyaki, a powdered milk shake (to be mixed with water), crackers or bread, fruit, and dessert or an energy bar (plus condiments, utensils, napkins and a heating device).
Some components of the MREs are already gluten-free, like the powdered shake, says Andrasik. He would cobble together an MRE by swapping things like breaded chicken for the shake. (Trading is common practice, he says. Soldiers have been doing it since the first World War.)
Unlike food in the dining facilities, ingredients in the MRE come from known sources and their gluten-free status can be ascertained. Ingredients are actually listed on the individual components of most MREs, says Andrasik. In his research, he found that the factories that process MREs clean their equipment between runs, reducing the risk of cross contamination. What’s more, he adds, kosher, Halal and vegetarian MREs have been available for several years now.
“Producing a gluten-free MRE would just be a matter of fine-turning what they already do,” he contends.
But when Andrasik asked some of his fellow gluten-free soldiers if they’d be willing to talk “on the record” to push for changes like the gluten-free MRE, no one was interested. How will the Army know, if there’s not a demand for it, he implored.
“I had their anonymous support but no one wanted to publicly declare they were gluten-free, or even worse, had celiac disease,” he says. “A soldier’s worst fear is becoming a target for discharge, that the Army would rather cut its losses than have to make special accommodations.”
“Deployment, particularly to a desolate place like Afghanistan, is certainly not an ideal scenario to have to deal with the gluten-free diet,” Andrasik concedes. “It can be challenging under the best of circumstances.”
However, out of an estimated 1,095 meals he ate during deployment, just eight of them contained enough gluten to make him feel noticeably ill.
“That’s an accuracy rate of about 99.3 percent,” Andrasik calculates. More importantly, he never missed duty and remained otherwise healthy, albeit almost 40 pounds lighter. (Walking several miles daily while carrying heavy equipment played a role in his weight loss, he points out.)
“With dedication, the gluten-free diet can be done anywhere by anyone,” Andrasik says. “I’m no one special and I made it work.”
CPT B. Donald Andrasik is author of Gluten Free in Afghanistan. Visit his website at glutenfreeinafghanistan.com. Senior medical correspondent Christine Boyd has celiac disease and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.